Wednesday, December 3, 2008

US-Iraq agreement revealed

Nearly lost in the Thanksgiving hubbub last week was the announcement that the United States and Iraq’s government have finally reached an agreement over the future of US troops in their country. The two sides needed to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) because the original UN mandate that authorized the 2003 invasion was set to expire at the end of this year. Without a new agreement the US would, under international law, have no right to keep troops in Iraq past December 31 (though as I said earlier, perhaps that's not such a bad idea).

Negotiating the SOFA though has been an ordeal. President Bush was so determined to get the agreement done before the end of his term, he agreed to a withdrawal timetable - something he repeatedly slammed the Democrats for requesting. Even then the Iraqi government was reluctant to sign onto the SOFA, adding in their own round of changes (after Bush had said that SOFA negotiations were finished). The Iraqis delayed the final vote so that even more changes could be made to bring reluctant Sunni lawmakers onboard.

The details of the deal have finally been made public. The highlights:

  • US troops have to withdraw from all Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009 and from the country entirely by the end of 2011 (so ironically Bush has set the stage for Obama to make good on one of his main campaign promises);

  • the US will have the right to use Iraq's airspace and waters, but the US has promised that it will not use Iraq as a base to launch an attack on any of Iraq's neighbors (read that as Iran);

  • US forces will not be allowed to detain Iraqis without criminal charges; and finally,

  • US soldiers will not have immunity to Iraqi law when they are off US bases off-duty, nor will US contractors be immune to Iraqi law.

That last item is a major departure for US policy regarding our troops. The US government has SOFA agreements with countries all over the world, but one common provision is that US troops are immune to local laws. If they are accused of a crime in a foreign country it is up to the US military to prosecute them, not the local courts. In Iraq this immunity was also extended to US contractors who performed many paramilitary duties around the country (think of security firms like Blackwater). According to one report by MSNBC the lifting of immunity for contractors may be retroactive, meaning they could be charged for incidents that occurred years earlier. MSNBC said that firms like Blackwater are quite upset about that tidbit...

But even with all the changes made to the SOFA, it was still a hard sell for the Iraqis. Some Sunni parties did not go along with it, and a bloc of Shiite lawmakers loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr vocally opposed it. Neither group is happy with the continued presence of US troops in Iraq, nor to they want to see the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki strengthened. And even though the Iraqi government has approved the pact, it's still not the final word on the deal. The whole agreement is scheduled to be put up for a national referendum before July 30 of next year.

But for now there's a deal in place and the troops will be in Iraq for some time to come.
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